How many dollars does it take to get to the top of search engine results pages (SERPs)?
The truth: it depends.
Yes, the dreaded “it depends.”
But in this case, it really does depend.
In fact, depending on a hundred different variables, the cost of search engine optimization can range from $500/month to $50,000/month.
Where will your SEO plan fall on that spectrum? That’s what we intend to answer with this article.
When you’re finished, you’ll have all the information you need to estimate the cost of your SEO program, including:
- Cost factors that influence pricing
- SEO cost by pricing model (price ranges included)
- SEO cost by service type (price ranges included)
- Developing an SEO budget
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How much does SEO cost?
SEO is one of the most diverse services in the world and dozens of cost factors enter into the equation when developing an SEO package:
Goals: Traffic? How much traffic? Leads? How many leads? Sales? How many sales? Subscribers? How many subscribers? Brand awareness? How much reach? The list goes on. Every goal requires a different set of tactics to achieve it, all of which cost different amounts.
Speed: SEO takes time, no matter the goal, but investing more money can expedite the process. How fast do you want to reach your goals?
Deliverables: Some agencies have a fixed set of deliverables that don’t change between clients, others customize deliverables to fit each clients’ unique needs. In general, no two agencies or consultants offer the same bill of goods.
Experience: You can spend hundreds of dollars on inexperienced SEO companies or consultants and get nowhere fast. Or you can spend thousands of dollars on experienced SEO agencies and actually make some money.
Competition (keyword difficulty): Are you a new SEO software company looking to carve out a piece of search real estate in the SEO industry? Good luck. Are you a trampoline supplier looking to rank for trampoline replacement parts? Much easier, and less expensive.
Type: eCommerce SEO? Local SEO? International SEO? Enterprise SEO? User experience SEO? Link building? One-time optimization? Site migration?
Scope: Cost will vary dramatically between a Shopify store with 1,000 product pages vs. an 8-page brochure website with one service offering. Just like cost will vary if you include a technical SEO audit or schema markup strategy, or if you pursue 10 keywords vs. 150 keywords.
Baseline: What’s the current state of your SEO? Do you have a website yet? Have you accumulated domain authority? Is your website sandboxed from Google? How about your link profile, website architecture, or content management system (CMS)?
Cost is correlated with satisfaction
There’s only one universal truth in SEO when it comes to pricing: you get what you pay for.
SEO is not free (even if you do it alone) and it’s not cheap (even if you find a low-cost/high value agency).
This is why business owners that invest more in SEO (especially in an SEO agency with more experience and know-how) are more satisfied.
According to Brain Dean, those that spend more than $500/month on SEO are significantly more satisfied than those that spend less than $500/month.
The truth is that if you’re paying less than $500/month for SEO, you should be dissatisfied, because it’s only enough to pay for your SEO partner’s operating expenses and overhead, not actual SEO.
SEO cost by pricing model
Most agencies stick with one dominant pricing model. However, according to Ahrefs, 40% of agencies offer multiple pricing models.
Makes sense, considering certain SEO activities fit better with different pricing models.
For example, you wouldn’t want to bill a client on a monthly basis if you conducted a one-time technical audit that took two weeks. You’d want to charge them a one-time, project-based fee instead.
According to SparkToro, the most common pricing models include (in order):
Let’s explore each, along with their average SEO cost.
1. Monthly retainer
Average cost (in the US): $2,501-$5,000/month
A monthly retainer pricing model is when you pay the same amount every month for a set of negotiated deliverables (i.e. an SEO campaign), and continue paying that same amount indefinitely until canceling.
Deliverables include ongoing SEO activities like on-page optimization, SEO content creation, link building, and reporting.
Monthly retainers win the most popular SEO pricing model award by a landslide.
According to a 2015 SparkToro survey, 87% of agencies adopted a retainer pricing model and according to a 2018 Ahrefs survey, 75% of agencies adopted a monthly retainer model.
Why are they so popular? Because most ongoing SEO programs, whether local, eCommerce, national, or international, fit within this pricing model.
How much is the average monthly SEO retainer?
According to Ahrefs, looking at US data alone, 66.25% of agencies charge at least $1,001 per month and the most common price range (18.75%) is $2,501-$5,000 per month.
This data is consistent with SparkToro’s 2015 survey: the most popular price range was also $2,501-$5,000 per month (26%).
2. Project-based pricing (fixed)
Average cost (in the US): $1,001-$1,500
Range: $100-$50K+/month (US)
Project-based SEO services with fixed pricing include one-time projects that you pay a flat fee for, no matter how long or how many resources they take to complete.
For example, a one-time project like an SEO audit, technical SEO audit, Google algorithm penalty clean up, keyword research, competitive analysis, linkable asset, or on-page optimization of a new website.
According to Ahrefs, 44% of agencies offer project-based pricing for some or all of their work and according to SparkToro, 65% of all agencies offer project-based pricing for some or all of their work.
While a majority of SEO agencies don’t offer project-based pricing (56%), the ones that do come in around the same range.
How much does the average SEO project cost?
In the US, 38% of agencies that offer project-based SEO pricing models charge $2,501 or more, but the most popular range (21%) falls between $1,001-$1,500.
In a similar survey from Credo, they also discovered that the most popular project-based SEO pricing (18% of respondents) was between $1,000-$1,999.
According to Ahrefs though, this number drops significantly when including Latin America, India and Easter Europe into the mix (where cost and execution drop significantly). Globally, the most common project-based price is between $501-$1,000.
3. Hourly pricing
Average cost (in the US): $100-$200/hour (US)
Range: $50-$300/hour (US)
Hourly pricing charges a flat rate per hour of work. Simple.
For example, say you want to hire an SEO consultant to do on-page optimization every time you write a new blog post, or hire an agency to work on your SEO X-amount of hours per month. In both cases, you would use an hourly pricing model.
According to Ahrefs, 88% of respondents charge $150/hour or less, and only 6% of respondents charge more than $200/hour. According to Credo, only 9% of their respondents charge more than $200/hour.
For both, the $100-$200/hour range proved most popular.
Also, US-based SEO agencies command the highest hourly rate (more than consultants, global agencies, or freelancer SEO experts).
4. Performance-based pricing
Average cost (in the US): pay when you rank, pay for traffic
Performance-based SEO pricing (or pay-for-performance) is when you pay for results. If the SEO provider doesn’t deliver the results that you agreed upon, then you don’t pay. Alternatively, you may pay a percentage of the results that were delivered.
For example, say you want to pursue 10 keywords, based on your agreement with a performance-based SEO agency, you wouldn't pay until those rankings reached page one.
According to SparkToro, performance-based pricing is the least popular pricing model in SEO, coming in at 15% of respondents offering it.
In all my years of experience, I’ve never personally met a performance-based SEO specialist. They obviously exist and you can find some with a quick Google search, but there’s a reason why they’re not popular: SEO is a long-term game with tons of nuance; pay-for-performance is incongruent with your goals.
Would you want your SEO partner taking short-cuts so they can get paid? Me either.
Plus, many pay-for-performance agencies use shoddy metrics like rankings and traffic. You can get both fairly easily without making a dent in your bottom line.
SEO cost by service type
Aside from the pricing models above, certain types of SEO have their own bill of goods and unique pricing. We wrote an entire article on the different types of SEO services, so we won’t go in-depth on every one here.
Let’s explore the three most common types of SEO that have unique pricing models:
1. Link building
Purchased links (not recommended) average cost: $50-$200+ per link
Manual link building average cost: $150-$1,500 per link; $5,000-20K/month for link building campaign (content creation and promotion included)
Link building is the cornerstone of off-page SEO. And for good reason: backlinks are one of the three most important ranking factors, according to Google.
Link building services vary, from markets where you can purchase links in a single click (not recommended), to full-blown agency services that will create linkable assets (i.e. content), promote them, conduct outreach, and manually build backlinks.
Purchasing links from link schemes can cost anywhere from $50-200+ per link.
Hiring a link building agency to do link building the right way can cost anywhere from $5,000-$20,000K/month.
2. Local SEO
Automated listing management average cost: $14-$50/month/location
Manual citation building average cost: $200-600 (25-80+ listings)
Local Pack + organic SEO cost: $999-$3,000+/month
Local SEO refers to SEO for businesses that serve a specific region, like plumbers, plastic surgeons, or hair salons.
When we talk about local SEO as a service, we mean one of two things: first, tactics that will help you rank in Local Pack and Map results for queries with local intent (e.g. “plumber in Newport Beach”); second, tactics that will help you rank in organic results for local queries.
In most cases, a local SEO service will include both Local Pack rankings and organic rankings, but sometimes it’s one or the other.
Automated listing management: $14-$50/month/location
Ranking in Local Pack and Map results requires three unique activities: a Google My Business page, online review management, and citation building (directory listings).
Thankfully, you can manage all of those on your own with software like Moz Local ($14/month/location), Synup ($30/month/location), or Yext ($19/week/location).
Citation building: $200-600 (25-80+ listings)
Option two for ranking in Local Pack results is to have an agency manually manage your Google My Business page and online review acquisition, and manually build citations (business listings on different directories) for you.
Citation building can range from $200 for 25 listings to $600 for 80 listings using a service like WhiteSpark.
Local Pack + organic SEO: $999-$3,000+/month
Last, for local businesses that want a presence in organic results (standard 10 blue links results) and Local Pack/Map results, most agencies offer a service that accomplishes both for somewhere between $999-$3,000/month (more for multiple locations).
Common deliverables include ongoing on-page optimization and link building, citation building, Google My Business management, review management, and content creation.
3. Content marketing
Small business (SMB) average cost: $1,500-$10,000+/month
Enterprise average cost: $6,000-$60,000+/month
Content marketing is a broad term used to describe a family of digital marketing tactics that work together, along with high-quality media, to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
For example, deliverables include:
- Content creation (blogs, infographics, service pages, guides, videos, etc.)
- Social media
- Content distribution (forums, communities, social, colleagues, etc.)
- Paid promotion (PPC ads that promote content)
- Email marketing (growing subscribers)
Today, content marketing has risen as a preferred way of doing SEO, since you can’t rank (or acquire backlinks) without high-quality content first.
Depending on the deliverables, content marketing can range from $1,500-$10,000/month for SMBs and up to $6,000-$60,000 for large enterprise businesses.
How do you determine an SEO budget?
Figuring out how much money you should spend on your SEO when drafting your marketing budget isn’t difficult when you have a few benchmarks and a marketing funnel.
Yes, the marketing funnel. And no, it’s not dead.
Using a marketing funnel, you can work backward from goals to deliverables to determine exactly how much your SEO budget should encompass.
Let’s explore a really simple example.
Traffic: 6,000 organic search visitors/month
Leads: 120 organic leads/month
Sales: 30 organic sales/month
Per sale gross = $18,000 annual recurring revenue (ARR)
Per sale net = $9,000ARR
Net ARR from organic traffic = $270,000ARR
Using this example data, if you were to double organic traffic to 12,000 visitors/month, suddenly your net ARR from organic traffic swells to $540,000ARR.
If you’re satisfied with that goal, then you can interview marketing agencies in search of an SEO strategy that you think can achieve it.
How much should you pay for that strategy? How much of that net new $270,000 ARR are you willing to part ways with to get it?
That’s your SEO budget.
If that sounds like more than you can afford right now, then set a different goal, revise the strategy and put another price on it.
Is SEO worth the investment?
So, what’s the cost of SEO?
Between pricing models, SEO types, cost factors, and so much more, price points can vary drastically.
Good news: the compounding effects of first page rankings, year after year, produce a return on investment that keeps on giving.
There’s only one thing we know with certainty about SEO pricing: low cost usually means low quality usually means low satisfaction.
If you’re ready to take your SEO game to the next level, invest in a quality SEO agency that’s going to know what quality content means and how to gather the data to prove results.